Third Person, Present Tense Is My Space Jam
As some of you may know, I wrote this funny little book called SPACE CONTEST: CRAFTER BATH —
Okay, apparently it’s called something else? Whatever.
Point is, that book — like many of my books — is written in third person, present tense.
Now, that’s a particular stylistic choice. And for some, I imagine a bit jarring. I’ve seen the style more and more lately, but when I used it in Blackbirds, not so much. (Not suggesting I invented it or anything. I JUST MADE IT COOL. Okay probably not, but shut up.)
As you know, Bob, a few weeks back Entertainment Weekly released a short preview of Star Wars: Aftermath, whereupon eager fans and readers discovered that I was, indeed, taking this particular stylistic highway with the book. Some folks said they liked it, some said it grew on them, others did not like it at all, and a few were just like… fucking super mad about it. (Spoiler alert: do not read the comments under the Entertainment Weekly article. Or anywhere else on the Internet because comments sections are the Internet’s septic systems. Okay, you can read the comments here because people are cool and because I actually moderate this place, as should anyone governing any comments section online.) Some readers even said that because the classic prologue to the stories is A long time ago, that the books must absolutely be written in past tense or otherwise, Jar-Jar becomes Emperor and Greedo kills Han Solo back in the Mos Eisley cantina and BB-8 is never born.
I understand the complaint. It’s different. It’s a stylistic choice. It isn’t for everyone.
But it is for me.
And so, I’d like to unpack a little why it is exactly I like to write in this style.
TAKE MY HAND AND LET US GO ON A MAGICAL JOURNEY TOGETHER.
*takes your hand*
*throws you into the Pit of Carkoon*
Ever read a screenplay?
Third person, present tense. All of ’em.
Ever watch a movie?
A movie doesn’t happen in the past — even if it’s set in the past, it’s unfolding literally before you.
There’s an argument to be made here that, a-duh, books are not movies. Which, yeah, I know. I’m mule-bitten sometimes, but dang, I’m not that dumb. Just the same, the types of books I write — while not anti-intellectual, I hope, and certainly not in defiance of literary form — feel better to me when they’re more cinematic. When it feels like something playing out on the screen inside your head. That’s not to say I ignore the internal dimensions (mental and emotional) of the novel form. But it give me the freedom to write a book and imagine a camera running behind the words and pages. Dynamic and alive.
I write in what you might consider “thriller pacing” a lot of the time — a sense of danger and escalation, a vibe of threat and ticking clocks and present dread. A lot of books to me read like, Once upon a time, which is to say, “This already happened.” It’s history. A re-telling, not a telling. Events gone past, times gone away, characters who have already come and gone and who did the things they did and now it’s all over.
Present tense affords me the chance to subvert that. It lets me write a story that feels all the more dangerous because its outcome isn’t set — by making it now instead of in history, it becomes a living document. It’s an evolving narrative. Just that tiny shift in timing lets the narrative (to me) become fresh, unpredictable, as sassy as a downed powerline sparking and snapping in the street. It feels like fate isn’t yet written. The destiny of the characters is ever in flux. As such, it lends itself to urgency — and you read less to find out what happened and more to find out what’s going to happen next. Every page feels like it exists only because you turn it. Less an excavation and an archive and more an act of shared narrative creation. The reader makes the story happen just by reading.
Close, But Not Intimate
Third person present lets me get close, but doesn’t demand intimacy. I don’t have any problems with first person present, but to me the combination can — though not always — feel too close. The characters run the risk of becoming irritating or over-sharing. And first person also limits us to who we know and who we see. It undoes some chances for suspense or mystery because we’re living in a character’s head all the time. Here it feels like we’re hovering close enough to hear the character’s surface thoughts — to get some internal history, but not to stand under the waterfall of their thoughts and drown there.
Simple And Elegant
No great description here to unpack — I just find third-person present to be a really clean, clear way to write. It’s not like looking at a painting, but rather, like watching someone paint.
It’s Sometimes How We Tell Stories To Each Other
Maybe this is more a factor of how we tell stories in the American Northeast, but we tell stories orally to one another, and they tend to skew to the present tense: “So then the guy at the counter says, ‘No, we ain’t got no fucking otterburgers,’ but I know he’s got fucking otterburgers because I’ve seen the guy eating ’em right out of the jar. And Betty over there, she’s walking by the Joust machine in the corner looking like someone just peed in her Lucky Charms because she wants otterburgers too and now this clown is telling me no goddamn otterburgers. Right? I mean, fuck.”
We tell stories like we’re all there, right now, present and accounted for. Even if it happened earlier that day or two years ago. We tell them actively, urgently, presently.
So, your turn.
Do you like present tense? Why?
Or, moreover: why don’t you like it?
Better with third, or only in first?
Sound off in the comments.
* * *
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